In discussions about local development, Parkview Field is often held up as the catalyst of growth and investment in downtown Fort Wayne.
It was the development that beat the odds—highly contested before it was built and highly successful after.
But before the minor league baseball stadium opened in 2009, another controversial attraction was building community spirit in downtown Fort Wayne each week, and it was started and made successful by grassroots citizens.
“The Barr Street Market was really the first project in the last two decades to bring people downtown for something besides work,” says Andrew Thomas, a former president of the Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana (YLNI).
Tents crowd the streets for the historic Barr Street Market.
During his tenure as a YLNI president and board member, Thomas led the effort to revive the historic market in 2004, creating a public gathering space for citizens in the heart of downtown.
But with Barr Street’s wild success in recent years, bringing out crowds of 1,000 each weekend, few tell the story of a time when reviving the historic market was a bold and risky thing to do.
As plans for Electric Works hang in limbo, Fort Wayne finds itself at a crossroads in development again with a new public market at stake.
The Barr Street Market and Ft. Wayne Farmers Market are joining forces to create the new Fort Wayne Public Market, set to take place in and around Building 27 of the Electric Works campus.
This is the story of how farmers markets are uniting northeast Indiana, and the role they could play in a more connected, healthy future.
If you drive through downtown Fort Wayne on a sunny Saturday morning in the summer, you’ll notice a difference.
The streets are busy—not with cars, but with people. Pedestrians and cyclists are waiting at stop lights, crossing streets, strolling sidewalks.
As you drive toward Barr Street, you’ll see more people, crowds the likes of a summer festival, filling up two blocks behind the History Center.
“Watch the pace that they walk,” Thomas says.
The pace of people meandering around the market on a Saturday morning is different than the pace of people at the grocery store.
“They’re not just there to buy the product they want,” he explains. “They’re there to be there. They’re there to observe.”
Each Saturday of the summer, the Barr Street Market provides a public gathering space in downtown Fort Wayne.
That’s the idea behind the Barr Street Market, Thomas says. YLNI created it to be a gathering place for the region—a place where people could walk, talk, eat, listen to music, and maybe even buy something.
The concept started at the very first YLNI meeting on May 20, 2004, Thomas says.
At the time, there was a disconnect between city officials and young adults.
“There was a group called Northeast Indiana Corporate Council that felt there were not enough young people engaged in the community,” Thomas says. “There was some internal debate: Was it that the old guard didn’t want to listen to the young people, or the young people didn’t want to get involved? We found out through gathering that wasn’t the case at all. The leadership in the community really wanted to have input from the young people, and the young people really wanted to have input; we just didn’t know how to connect.”
It was a misunderstanding—the type of thing that happens when people don’t interact.
So YLNI was formed to improve communication, and in a way, the farmers market was a result of that desire, as well.
Farmers markets give consumers the chance to meet local farmers, bakers, and makers.
At the first YLNI meeting, attendees rolled out big sheets of paper on tables at the Dash-In and everyone went around and wrote down project ideas—things Fort Wayne needed that young adults could provide.
A downtown farmers market rose to the tip of the list.
At the time, downtown Fort Wayne was desolate—a place many came to work and go home. YLNI wanted it to be something more.
So they decided to revive the historic Barr Street Market at the corner of Wayne and Barr Streets, the oldest public meeting space in Fort Wayne. The location functioned as a thriving market from the 1840s to the 1950s, and the holes for tent poles were still there in the sidewalk behind the History Center.
All they had to do was get permission to use the space and coordinate vendors.
The historic Barr Street Market behind the History Center was the city's first public meeting space.
Thomas took the lead on the project, and one of his first steps was presenting to the History Center's board.
“I thought I was going to go to the History Center, sit in front of the board, and they were going to hug me and say, ‘Thank you for wanting to do this,’” Thomas says. “Instead, it was the complete opposite.”
When Thomas presented to the History Center, he met opposition, and for good reason.
Someone had already tried to revive the Barr Street Market about six years before him and failed.
They had problems attracting vendors to come downtown, problems getting volunteers, even issues with the market itself. The plaza needed paving and electrical work.
“There was just a host of things, but with my nature, I didn’t really care,” Thomas says. “I said, ‘We can do it; we can figure it out. Let’s just figure it out.’”
As the son of the family that owns NAPA Auto Parts, he had business experience, and he put his skills to use on the market.
“We took it seriously,” he says. “We treated it like a business.”
That means, they went all in—first with finding vendors to come downtown, then with getting them there.
YLNI volunteers arrive early to help set up for the Barr Street Market.
Once the YLNI task force won the History Center’s approval, they met and mapped out what they needed to do. They put together registration forms for vendors and set restrictions to make sure at least 80 percent of the vendors were food-related. They didn’t want the market to be a swap meet. They also limited the scope of vendors to local and homemade goods only.
But within that category, they cast a wide net. They wanted anyone who was willing to come downtown, and in Fort Wayne, there were not many.
“I had more doors slammed in my face than opened,” Thomas says. “It was an unproven idea. Nobody would come downtown. The vendors didn’t think they would sell anything. It came to the point where I said, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do this.’”
Then, instead of giving up, he decided to branch out.
“I said, if we don’t have a big network of Fort Wayne producers that have the capacity to add a Saturday market, then I would go find somebody who could,” Thomas says.
The Barr Street Market brings local music to downtown Fort Wayne for guests to enjoy free of charge.
That meant calling on Fort Wayne’s surrounding communities—towns around Allen County like Grabill and cities across the region like Wabash.
These places were rich with farmland and ripe for opportunities to sell at an urban market.
Thomas personally called vendors like an apple grower in Wabash and convinced them to make the drive to Fort Wayne.
When they did, their efforts paid off.
“Our apple guy sold out every time,” Thomas says. “He even had people from Fort Wayne start going to his orchard in Wabash because of it.”
Along with grocery items, the Ft. Wayne Farmers Market offers ready-to-eat options from vendors like Hoffman Certified Organics from Huntertown.
The Barr Street Market helped farmers promote their work to a new audience of local consumers, and it introduced consumers to goods they couldn’t find at the grocery store.
In his search for vendors, Thomas also reached out to the Amish community in Grabill who had excellent products, but needed transportation to Fort Wayne.
So every Saturday morning at 5 a.m., he sent a NAPA box truck to Grabill to pick up one of the vendors and bring them to town.
“We’d load up all of their stuff into the back of the truck, and then help them unload when they got here,” Thomas says.
Each weekend, a team of six to eight YLNI volunteers arrived at 6 a.m. on Saturdays to haul out tables, work with vendors, and make sure the market was ready to open at 9 a.m.
It was their weekly devotion and the willingness of regional vendors to give downtown Fort Wayne a shot that allowed the Barr Street Market to beat the odds and thrive.
Today, more than 14 years later, it’s grown from one block to two blocks, and it’s run by more than 100 YLNI volunteers throughout the summer, with teams of five or six working two-hour shifts each week.
Ashley Wagner, the current Market Manager, says she’s seen incredible growth even since she started in 2012.
“When I first started, the most we could do was 33 vendors,” she says. “Now we have upwards of 70 vendors every Saturday, not to mention our food trucks, nonprofits, and kids activities.”
Ashley Wagner, right, is the Market Manager for the Barr Street Market.
Across Wayne Street at the Barr Street intersection, the Ft. Wayne Farmers Market sets up camp next to the Barr Street Market each Saturday of the summer to extend the experience for guests.
While the Barr Street Market shuts down in winter months, the Ft. Wayne Farmers Market moves indoors at Parkview Field where it first began in the fall of 2012, says Market Manager Lisa Haagan.
“Our biggest drive is these vendors need a place to sell more than four months of the year,” Haagan explains. “Farmers do grow in the winter, and we’ve had a great response from the community.”
Now, the combined experience of the Ft. Wayne Farmers Market and the Barr Street Market—indoor and outdoor—is laying the foundation for the new Fort Wayne Public Market at Electric Works.
At age 46, Thomas is no longer a member of YLNI, but he continues his involvement with the Barr Street Market by attending it with his family and advocating for it as Board President of Greater Fort Wayne Inc.
As GFW leads efforts to revitalize the historic General Electric campus, turning it into the proposed Electric Works project, a point of contention in the city is the development’s price tag.
The entire project will cost more than $400 million, and Phase 1 of the west Broadway campus, including the public market, is projected to cost $221.1 million.
The project will receive an estimated $82.4 million in private capital, and the developer, RTM Ventures, is eligible for $73.7 million in federal and state tax credits, but they still need $65 million committed locally to finalize other funding for Phase 1.
Mayor Tom Henry says the City will contribute $50 million to the project, and the County has shown support, too.
But the question remains: Where will the other $15 million public dollars come from?
Officials are on a deadline to figure it out, or risk losing millions in historic tax credits.
Due to recent tax-reform legislation, the project’s estimated $31.5 million in historic tax credits are set to lose 20 percent of their value if the project is not completed by Dec. 21, 2020. Each passing day without a development agreement in place (between the developer, city, and county), places mounting pressure on the construction schedule.
The goal was to start construction July 1, but that is now out of reach. There is a Legacy Committee meeting tonight at 5:30 p.m. at Citizen Square, where officials will discuss the local commitment of $65 million.
With the entire project at stake, Thomas encourages the public to show their support for Electric Works. The public dollars put into it are expected to be made back in tax revenue in 12 years, and he thinks plans for its public market, in particular, makes the project worth a taxpayer investment.
“What we’re saying with Electric Works is we get that there’s going to be public money that’s put into this, and we want to honor the public money,” Thomas says. “What better way to honor the public money than to create a public market?”
That's where the research comes in.
Jered Blanchard is a Community Wellness Coordinator with the Purdue Extension in Allen County, and a member of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit group planning the Fort Wayne Public Market since May 2017. Jered Blanchard
In his work as a Wellness Coordinator, his goal is improving the health of the Fort Wayne community with policies, programs, and environmental changes instead of direct health education.
Essentially, his job is to create a healthier environment.
“One of the things I’ve focused on the last few years is food access, and the role that it plays in the health of a community,” Blanchard says.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a food desert is a place home to at least 500 people that is more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.
In Fort Wayne, the areas hit the hardest by this designation are also areas of low income on the Southeast side and Downtown, in the 46803, 46806, and 46802 area codes.
“GE is connected to low-income census tracks, and it’s adjacent to food deserts,” Blanchard says. “That’s one of the reasons we are excited about having a public market there because it offers the opportunity for having more food in that area.”
And not just any food, but healthy, local food.
While buying local and eating healthy are often perceived as more expensive alternatives for middle and upper-class residents, Blanchard says he’s working with the group organizing the Fort Wayne Public Market to ensure that low-income residents have access to the market’s products, as well.
In researching public markets across the country, the team has identified an inclusive farmers market in Flint, Mich., as an example of what they’re hoping to create: A healthy place where people of all income levels can afford food and feel welcome.
It’s a model that many local farmers markets are already putting into practice by offering SNAP and WIC food stamp discounts on produce to make healthy eating affordable.
Parkview Hospital and the St. Joe Community Health Foundation began a program called “Our HEALing Kitchen” in 2014 that not only offers these discounts, but also teaches residents how to grow their own produce and cook healthy meals.
Local produce is a large focus of the farmers market.
With ample space for culinary training programs and restaurant accelerators for food entrepreneurs at Building 27 of the GE campus, Blanchard sees opportunities for more programs like HEAL to take root at Electric Works, offering nutrition classes, connecting residents, and providing them with spaces to learn.
In a way, the campus itself could be a catalyst for the type of environmental change he’s hoping to create.
“We find that communities are healthier if they have safe places to meet—safe parks that are well lit and sidewalks that are safe and comfortable to use,” Blanchard says. “The whole environment can impact a persons’ health.”
Public markets can foster healthy eating habits.
Which brings the conversation back to Thomas’s initial plans for the Barr Street Market.
It was created to be more than a place to buy produce. It was envisioned as an equalizing space where people didn’t have to buy anything or have a reason to be there at all. They could simply come and be.
From rural to urban, Amish to Anglican, low-income to high-income, a public market can bring communities together.
According to the Project for Public Spaces, public markets are not just places of commerce. Successful markets help grow and connect urban and rural economies, too.
"As one of the few places where people comfortably gather and meet, markets are our neighborhoods’ original civic centers," the website says.
Maintaining this status as a welcoming public space will be a critical component of moving the Fort Wayne Public Market to Electric Works, and it can be done without losing momentum.
When the 100-year old Flint Farmers' Market relocated to a former newspaper printing plant in June 2014, it reopened with record attendance.
"Since the relocation, the market has seen a 300 percent increase in foot traffic, the number of customers walking or biking to the market has increased from 4 percent (2011) to 21 percent (2015), and direct sales have increased from $4.9 million (2011) to close to $14 million (2015)," the Project for Public Spaces reports.
While many aspects of the future Fort Wayne Public Market are still in the works, Blanchard says it will feature both indoor and outdoor vendor spaces with a focus on continuing the vibe that current markets have created in downtown Fort Wayne.
This fall, the Barr Street Market and Ft. Wayne Farmers Market will officially merge to form the Fort Wayne Public Market. Then they will do at least one more summer at Barr Street before moving into the Electric Works space in the summer of 2020, if everything goes according to plan.
YLNI still runs the Barr Street Market each Saturday.
In the meantime, they’re gathering feedback from the community via an online survey conducted by the national public market consultant Ted Spitzer, President of Market Ventures, Inc.
Community members are invited to take the survey now through Thursday, June 14.
“One of the things is that any time there’s change it can be scary and hard,” Blanchard says. “We don’t want to alienate people or make them feel like this is happening to them. We have a lot of opportunities here, and we can make this what the community needs.”
Thomas hopes that YLNI and other groups who have a vested interest in northeast Indiana’s future will speak up and help direct the market’s future.
Once again, grassroots citizens have an opportunity to shape their city.
“A YLNI-revived downtown market could become a pivotal component for the largest economic development project the city has ever seen,” Thomas says. “That’s pretty empowering.”